Helping children understand death

Dear Mr. Dad: Neither of my kids (6 and 3) has ever had to deal with death, but they have several older relatives who are very close to them. They will not live forever. How can I prepare my kids as well as possible for their first encounter with death?

A: First, congratulations for recognizing the need to prepare. Most kids will be confronted with a death before they reach adulthood, and too few parents take the initiative. A funeral is no place to think about death for the first time.

Our taboos against discussing death are not helpful. All parents should talk to their children about death and answer their questions gently but honestly as early as possible—before a loved one dies. It’s in the early years, before they really grasp its finality, that kids are best able to begin thinking about death.

Talking doesn’t mean a formal lecture (“Now son, let’s have a seat and talk about death”). As with most parenting moments, opportunities drop out of the blue. A dead butterfly or the loss of a pet can give you a chance get the following broad messages across in age-appropriate ways:

1. Death is a natural part of life, and everything that lives also dies.

2. The butterfly (squirrel/cat/person on the news) cannot feel any pain, sadness, or fear.

3. It’s normal and perfectly okay to feel sad, and to let your sadness show.

Let your child take the lead. His or her normal curiosity will generate questions. Make sure your child knows the questions are welcome. If you show discomfort or disapproval, the questions, and the opportunity, will vanish. And be prepared for questions no adult would ever ask. It’s not uncommon for a four-year-old to ask, with simple curiosity, whether it is lonely down in the coffin, or who will put her blankie in with her when she dies.

Once a loved one has died, it is even more important to keep communication open:

1. Be gentle but honest. Denying the reality of the person’s death is not helpful to the child’s process of grieving. Avoid euphemisms like “she has passed on,” and absolutely avoid saying “she went to sleep but won’t wake up” Also, regardless of religious convictions, avoid suggestion such as “God wanted Uncle Mike with him because he was so good.” Such statements can confuse and terrify children—especially good ones!

2. Validate feelings. Let them know, again, that it’s normal and okay to feel sad and to show that sadness.

3. Affirm continuity. Life goes on, and that the person who has died continues to live in our memories. This is not just a cliché. Children sometimes feel that a person who has died is somehow erased, when in fact much of the joy of the relationship can still be experienced by remembering.

4. Talk about the person. In an attempt to protect their children from grief, some parents avoid talking about a person or pet who has died. This only makes a child feel more isolated in her grief. Talking and laughing (and crying) about the lost loved one allows children, and ourselves, to work through grief and come to terms with the loss.

If a child asks whether Mom and Dad will also die, say yes, all people die eventually, but reassure the child that it won’t happen for a long, long time. (Honesty is one thing, but there’s no need to trouble them with the possibility that it might be next week!)

And when your child begins to worry about her own death—often around age seven or eight—emphasize the many, many years of life she has ahead first. Our own mortality is never easy to think about, but a child for whom death was a natural subject from a young age will be well-equipped to begin the long journey to acceptance.